In 1920, the poet Ezra Pound moved from London to Paris to “save American letters from premature suicide and decomposition.” In 2012, is there someone who will move to Toronto to save Canadian letters from a similar fate?
The question arises in the wake of two developments that are disturbing to Canadian writers and independent book publishers: The slide toward bankruptcy of the leading independent Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and the merger of two of the world’s largest publishers, Penguin and Random House into a single entity owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann & Company.
Vancouver-based D&M, facing a debt load of $6 million, has taken the first step to file for bankruptcy protection. The prospects of finding an independent buyer to pick up this debt, or of working out a settlement of a few cents on the dollar with creditors, are slim, in my opinion. Sadly, the company’s creditors include many writers, one of whom is owed more than $50,000 in unpaid royalties.
Penguin and Random House have operated competitively in Canada for many years. They’ve been prestigious outlets for many Canadian writers, while also distributing in Canada the lists of their parent companies. Together, they own 40 per cent of the Canadian book market.
The worry is that the merger, even if it leaves the imprints standing, is likely to result in the publication of fewer books by Canadian authors.
The merger also raises serious questions about Canada’s existing policy on foreign investment in the book publishing industry. The Harper government is known to favor a more open approach to foreign investment generally. Its a fundamental of conservative thinking that such investment creates jobs and stimulates the economy. That’s why the test for a foreign buyer — in every other industry — is to show that the transaction will bring a “net benefit” to Canada.
That’s not the case of the cultural industries. They were intentionally left out of the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement, and its follow=-up, NAFTA. Too important to allow the sector to be swallowed up by foreign buyers, the thinking went. But now, there’s growing pressure to allow foreign publishers — like U.S.-based Simon & Schuster — to buy out or set up their own Canadian publishing companies.
Then came the Internet, and behemoths like Amazon, offering instant access to book buyers all over the globe, including Canada. A turning point may have come when Ottawa allowed Amazon to set up its own distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont., to better serve Canadian buyers.
While more book buying shifted to the Internet, the advent of the e-reader further undercut traditional book stores, especially the dwindling number of independent book dealers. The Chapters-Indigo chain fought back with its own online presence, and by launching its own e-reader, Kobo, since sold off to a major buyer.
As a consequence of all of this, you’ve got observers like The Globe and Mail’s John Barber declaring that the “phoenix (of Canadian publishing) is now officially extinct.”
Consolidation at both the publishing and the retail levels is nothing new — every other industry has gone through it in the past few decades. The economics that drive monopoly practices — low profitability and stagnant sales — are even more obvious in book publishing than in, say yoga making or hardware retailing.
For authors and publishers, three realities are clear:
- People seem to be reading less, distracted as they are by social media and web surfing.
- The shift to e-reading shouldn’t hurt that much – authors are still needed to create the content.
- The printed book is still the basis of literary life – the indispensable building block for public recognition , author success, and publisher survival.
So how do we avoid suicide and decomposition in Canadian letters?
Writers will write and readers will read. How to connect the two is the question. The Awards programs — Giller, Writers’ Trust , BC Non-Fiction, Taylor — are fantastic because in additional to their cash value, they draw attention to the winners and boost sales. It’s great to see the Giller go to an unconventional choice, Will Ferguson’s thriller 419. But the key, I think, is more effective promotion and marketing by publishers. Too many books are published unheralded, shipped off to the stores unaccompanied, and little or nothing is done by the publisher to make the public aware of their existence. Publishers are leaning too much on authors to do this job. This has to change. Readers have to be made aware of a book before they’ll buy it.
No book should be published unless the publisher (and the author) have a clear, effective, and unique marketing plan to support it. It’s not just a matter of dollars. Example: My recent book, Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, has joined the hundreds of other biographies on the book shelves, without any extraordinary effort being made by the publisher, Dundurn, to sell it. Memorial University in St. John’s might have been talked into putting on a seminar on the Smallwood legacy – a reappraisal of his life, 21 years after his death. Every book has something unique about it, and that uniqueness needs to be better exploited.
An online voice, Andrew Losowsky of the Huffington Post, recently asked why is it that we like to take books on vacation? Because “we read to be transported away from ourselves.” Adds Losowsky: “A great book is the very definition of a de-stress tool. It says, ‘Let me take you away from this for a while,’ and then, like a mystical masseuse for the mind, it does so.”
And don’t people need this now, more than ever?
Paris being one of the great walking cities of the world, it’s not surprising that it’s the metaphorical home of the Flaneur – the idler, the walkabout, the wanderer of the city’s streets. If I had more time, that’s what I’d become during my present visit!
I first became aware of the term from the work of Fred Herzog, the famed photographer of Vancouver street scenes. He entitled his shot of an untroubled gentleman staring at passers-by, The Flaneur. My English-French dictionary defines only the verb: flaner – to stroll.
I would like to think of myself as a flaneur, but I am not. I do, however, have a regular stroll that I enjoy very much. It begins (or ends) at the Edgar Quinet metro station one stop before Gare Montparnesse. In the morning, I go up rue Delambre to the corner of Monparnasse and boulevard Raspail (site of Le Dome and Le Rotonde, across the street from each other), and proceed up Raspail to Alliance Francaise. On that route, I see Paris in miniature: there is no shortage of boulangeries with their baguettes and croissants, la poissonnerie with Scottish salmon at E20 per k, small hotels that promise rooms “tout confort,”several sandwich shops, and numerous restaurants and bars. As well as une epicerie, un nettoyage, and the other necessities of everyday life.
According to Stephen Scobie of Edmonton, author of “The Measure of Paris,” there is no satisfactory English translation for flaneur. The character probably emerged in mid 19th century Paris, at a time when the streets had been cleaned up and sewer systems put in. Before that, Scobie observes, one would have hardly wished to walk the streets for pleasure: “narrow, unmapped and filthy, often with open sewers.”
Those who idly contemplated the true character of the flaneur have concluded that he (and only a man can be a true flaneur) must wander without a specific destination, being both present and detached from his surroundings, and without regard for urgent business that might require his presence elsewhere. “Unlike Hemingway hurrying to work,” Scobie says, “the flaneur has nowhere to go.” The reference is to Hemingway’s having written of choosing streets that would lead “back fastest to where you worked.”
Presence among, but detachment from the crowd is apparently the key to flaneur life. In 1863, Baudelaire wrote:
“The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd … The observer (flaneur) is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.”
The problem is we all have somewhere to go. The masses of workers hurrying from the Metro in the morning suggest to me the work ethic lives on in France, despite what we may hear otherwise.
The American writer Rebecca Solnitt, quoted by the Canadian, Stephen Scobie in The Measure of Paris, observed that “Parisian writers always gave the street address of their characters, as though all readers knew Paris so well that only a real location in the streets would breathe life into a character …”
Working on that principle, let me tell how I found 44 rue du Four, what that address is important for, and how I worked my way back to my hotel before taking a taxi to meet my new French friends, Michael and Violette Lefi.
On May 27, 1942, 44 rue du Four was the scene of a secret meeting called by Jean Moulin. It was to organize a unified resistance movement against the German occupation. Moulin had been the prefect of Chartres and had escaped to England after being arrested by the Nazis. While in Gestapo hands he had tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat. He would rather have died than given away his comrades while under torture.
Moulin was sent back into France by General de Gaulle with instructions to unify the quarrelsome splinter resistance movements that were springing up. Out of that meeting at 44 rue du Four came the National Council of Resistance. Later, Moulin was betrayed (no one knows by whom). He died in German captivity.
I left the Hotel Voltaire and walked along the Seine in the Sunday morning sun as far as rue Bonaparte. There, I turned south toward Saint Germain-des-Pres. My walk took me to the famous old church and the landmark Café des deux Magots and onto rue des Rennes. In two short blocks I was at rue du Four, even at that hour jammed with parked cars.
Why so many cars? Because, as I discovered when I turned to go along rue de Grenelle, a busy flea market was catering to hundreds of customers. From there, I went back to rue des Rennes and returned to boulevard Saint Germain. I followed Saint Germain east through the thickening crowd of strollers to rue des Saints Peres. That led back up to the Seine and my hotel. Rue des Saints Peres is a street that Ernest Hemingway wrote of taking in The Sun Also Rises: “We came out of theTuileries in the light and crossed the Seine and then turned up the rue des Saints Peres.”
You could walk the width of Paris in a day without too much trouble, so taxi rides never last very long. A 20-minute drive along the right bank carried me to the 12th arrondisement where at 5 rue du Colonel Oudet I at last found what awaits when you go through those large, dark doors you see on urban French dwellings. In this case a courtyard, and entrances to several buildings. The Lefis have a large and rather grand place that is akin to a Toronto loft. It fills the top two floors of a three story building plus a rooftop, a toit ouvret, which has much greenery, beautiful outdoor furniture, and a glassed in area with a comfortable sofa and chairs in case of rain. That’s what we’re having today — nous avons une pluie fine.
It was shocking — but not surprising — to see Prime Minister Harper indulge in such a malicious distortion of history with his attack on the wartime leader of the CCF party, James Shaver Woodsworth.
Harper, followed by Foreign Affairs minister John Baird, used Woodsworth’s reluctance to enter World War II as an excuse to avoid answering the NDP on whether Canada may stay in Afghanistan after our scheduled 2014 departure date.
“Unlike the NDP, we are not going to ideologically have a position regardless of circumstances,” Harper told the Commons. ” The leader of the NDP, in 1939, did not even want to support war against Hitler.”
Of course, Woodsworth wasn’t the leader of the NDP. It didn’t even come into existence until 1962, as opposition MPs loudly reminded the Prime Minister across the floor of the Commons. “Okay, it was the CCF, same difference,” he replied. “Parties do change their names from time to time.”
I don’t recall any single comment by Mr. Harper ever setting off such a flurry of condemnation. NDP MPs, to their credit, reacted shrewdly. They suggested it would be fair game to raise Reform party policies. I’d go back further. What about the time Conservative leader John Diefenbaker voted against Canada’s adoption of the Maple Leaf flag?
Perhaps Mr. Harper would benefit from a history lesson.J.S. Woodsworth is universally recognized as one of the great figures of Canadian public life, a man revered for his commitment to improving the lives of Canadians during the difficult 1920s and 1930, when social welfare measures such as employment insurance and pensions were virtually non existent. Mr. Harper would be well advised to read Kenneth McNaught’s biography of Mr. Woodsworth, A Prophet in Politics (University of Toronto Press).
Mr. Woodsworth was a Methodist minister, a Christian pacificist, whose moral code prevented him from supporting armed conflict. He told the CCF National Council that he could not support going to war, and offered to resign. His offer was refused, but every CCF MP but he voted to accept the government’s Throne Speech, an act tantamount to agreeing to going to war. Woodsworth’s successor, M. J. Coldwell, made it clear that the anti-war stance had been a personal view of Mr. Woodsworth, and did not reflect the position of the party. (There was no actual vote on a declaration of war.) The CCF pushed for all-out prosecution of the war effort, and supported conscription.
In his speech on the war, Mr. Woodsworth made clear his respect for democratic rights.
“I rejoice that it is possible to say these things in a Canadian parliament under British institutions. It would not be possible in Germany.”
At the time, Mr. Woodsworth was seriously ill. He had suffered a stroke and his wife had to write out his remarks for him on cards, which he could barely read. He managed to hold his seat in the 1940 election, but died in 1942.
Here is what Prime Minister Mackenzie King said of Mr. Woodsworth, when some Liberal MPs heckled the CCF leader during his speech opposing Canada’s entry into the war:
There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to Parliament.
This week’s Tory attacks set off a uproar on the web. The Globe and Mail’s story drew some 4,000 comments — the vast majority highly critical of Mr. Harper. I can’t recall a single case of so much public outrage. A Twitter site, #Harperhistory, quickly sprang to life.
Is it these kinds of unprincipled attacks that are at the root of Mr. Harper’s decline in the polls? Or are they a reaction to his evident loss of public support? (Latest polls show his trustworthiness rating down from 32 to 20 per cent, and put the Tories and the NDP in a statistical tie in voter support, both in the 32-34 per cent range.)
Mr. Harper’s cheap attempt to manipulate history as a means of avoiding a straight-up answer to a matter of current public concern, is yet another example of the kind of extremist politics that has no place in a respectful democratic dialogue. It is to be hoped Canadian voters will someday send him that message.
It was a year for good reading, and the outpouring of new books — despite problems besetting the publishing and book selling communities — never let up in 2011.
While I enjoy a good novel, my reading preference has always been for non-fiction. I read heavily for research. I’ve been soaking up many books on French and Parisian history, as I hope to do a book some day on a particular episode in French history in which I’ve long had an interest.
But at year’s end, I’ll differentiate from reading for research and reading for pleasure. This posting is about reading for pleasure.
I find the Best Seller lists to be indifferent guides to my own choices. In the Globe and Mail’s year-end non-fiction and fiction best seller lists (25 each), I found only three books that I’d cared enough about to buy and read. I did better by the National Post with its best books of 2011.
Three I enjoyed from that (shorter) list were Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster Canada) and two novels, The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain (Bond Street Books) and A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland and Stewart). My reviews of A Good Man and The Paris Wife are in my archives.
My choice for book of the year in the non-fiction department is In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers). This is a provocative and compelling account of the rise of Nazi Germany, as seen through the eyes of U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family — especially his daughter, Martha. As gripping as any thriller, it portrays the family’s encounters with high Nazi officials (Martha was introduced to Hitler at a lunch) and reveals the monstrous details of the German regime that were evident within months of Hitler’s taking power.
Dodd arrives in Berlin as a naive university professor, convinced from the student days he spent in Germany that the cultured nation he knew so well would never embrace the evil threats that accompanied Hitler’s rise to power. Mildly anti-Semitic himself, he is at first an apologist for Germany’s persecution of its Jews, but it is not long before he comes to realize “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem to not know what to do.” Dodd is eased out of his ambassadorship, and returns to America disillusioned with both his own country and Germany.
I found a second book by Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (Crown), equally enthralling. This is also a gem of narrative non-fiction writing, and tells the story of the architects behind the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, and the monster who lurked unseen in that city at the same time, indulging in murders and depravity without apparent interference.
A fine book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Vintage Canada) by John Vaillant, won the $50,000 British Columbia prize for Canadian non-fiction in 2011.As readable as any novel, it deals with the fine balance between nature, wildlife, and man in Russian Siberia. Focused on the behavior of one particular man-eating tiger, it also describes the environmental desecration that brought on a frightful confrontation between the animal and the men who work the Russian taiga. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the tiger.
I enjoyed The Tiger almost as much as Vaillant’s earlier work, The Golden Spruce, about the destruction of the oldest and largest tree in B.C.’s Haida Gwaii islands. Both books carry strong environmental messages which resonate equally powerfully.
Another Canadian book that I enjoyed this year was Charles Foran’s Mordecai Richler biography, Mordecai: The Life and Times ((Alfred A. Knopf). It scored the hit trick in Canadian non-fiction prizes, and deservedly so.
Two books I read largely for research, both dealing with chunks of Paris history, also turned out to be enjoyable for their own sake. Anyone fascinated by that great city should read them: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster) by historian David McCullough, and Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W,W. Norton) by Graham Robb. McCullough recounts the effects of Paris on American expatriats there between 1830 and 1900. Robb describes delicious episodes from Paris history from the early 19th century to the Second World War.
Finally, a bit of fun reading I had in 2011. I enjoyed two books by Maureen Jennings: Season of Darkness (McClelland & Stewart) and one of her inimitable Murdoch Murder mysteries, Poor Tom is Cold (McClelland & Stewart). Don’t expect the pseudo-science fiction twists of TV’s Murdoch series, but you can expect a faithful remaking of 1890s Toronto in the Poor Tom book.
All in all, a good reading year. May 2012 be as strong!
One of the proudest boasts of Canadian history is that we settled the West peacefully and without violence, while our American neighbors drenched themselves in the blood and killings of Indian wars and lawless cowboy shoot-outs when America turned its face toward the Pacific after the carnage of the Civil War.
In modern times, our sense of moral superiority has been burnished by our creation of national healthcare and a universal social safety net, and in avoiding the worst of the global financial mess. Assumptions like these embolden the myths that nations take to their breasts as their strongest-held beliefs, and Canada is no exception.
At least one of these myths is severely tested in the latest work from Canada’s preeminent western novelist, Guy Vanderhaeghe, whose thick, rich novel, A Good Man (McClelland & Stewart) is in the running for the top fiction awards of 2011.
Vanderhaeghe has built his novel on the detritus of the 20 years following the Civil War. Between 1860 and 1880, the tensions of western settlement spilled across the American border into Canada, putting a nervous edge on relationships between Washington and Ottawa. The U.S., intent on using its Army to annihilate the Indian tribes of its northern plains,looked for Canadian cooperation in preventing the tribes, especially Chief Sitting Bull’s Sioux, from fighting back behind the safety of the “Medicine Line” that divided the two countries. In British Canada, meanwhile, a few hundred men of the Northwest Mounted Police were charged with chasing whiskey traders and keeping the peace as white settlement began to trickle into what would become Saskatchewan and Alberta.
In A Good Man, a disillusioned Mountie, free to leave the force after his term of duty, departs Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills, with the intention of setting himself up with a cattle ranch in Montana. Wesley Case carries a terrible secret in his heart, the guilt of an incident from a long-ago battle in Ontario when he led a regiment of Canadian Militia against an Irish Fenian invasion.
Case goes as the unpaid agent of the NWMP’s Major James Walsh, having agreed to keep him informed of the activities of the U.S. Army commander in the Montana Territory. It is shortly after the massacre of Gen. George Custer and his men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Americans are terrified of further Indian attacks, most fearful of all of Chief Sitting Bull, whose tribe is wandering somewhere in the Territory.
Sitting Bull’s escape to Canada, where he is sympathetically received by Walsh, does little to ease American fears. They dread the possibility of further Indian resistance, and demand his surrender and confinement to a reserve.
Meanwhile, much is happening to Case. He finds a ranch, begins a curiously restrained affair with Ada Tarr, wife of a disreputable Fort Benton lawyer, and finds his life under the threat of Michael Dunne, a man who has been tracking Case since his days back in Ontario. In Dunne, Vanderhaeghe has created one of the most bestial characters of Canadian literature.
Vanderhaeghe resists the temptation to present Canadian treatment of the plains Indians as much better than what they suffered in the U.S. True, there was no genocide as happened under the U.S. Army. But Canada betrayed Sitting Bull by starving his tribe into submission, forcing its return to the US. There, he becomes a carnival object in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before he is murdered in 1890 by a native policeman acting on U.S. Army orders.
A Good Man has no shortage of dramatic episodes but does the relatively minor diplomatic standoff between Canada and the United States really warrant the 464 pages of this hefty tome? As an author who advocates that novelists take off their historian’s hats, Vanderhaeghe devotes interminable pages to historical exposition. An almost endless number of letters between Case and Walsh depict the tensions between the Major and his U.S. Army counterpart. Much of this gets in the way of a gripping good story. It would be more powerful if it had been 25,000 words shorter.
Vanderhaeghe’s new work completes a trilogy of Western novels, following The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing. It may not be his strongest, but it is a fitting finale to the series.
Where are the artists and writers in the Occupy movement? Whether it’s in New York, London or Toronto, the creative workers whose images and ideas both reflect and define society’s truths, are notable by their absence.
Does this mean the Occupy movement — disorganized and disparate as it is — lacks worthwhile purpose and goals? No, because the reduction of social and economic injustice has always been at the heart of great literature.
In Canada, Margaret Atwood became the focal point of protest against closing public libraries in Toronto. She simply gave a few interviews, urged people to sign a petition, and the response was so overwhelming that the Ford Brothers soon backed off their “gravy train” blather.
Here’s another issue that writers and artists could put their efforts toward: reform of the country’s drug laws. The timing is right. There’s no more costly or socially harmful policy than our existing laws covering both soft and hard drugs. Neil Reynolds of The Globe and Mail has an eloquent call for reform here.
For an expert’s view, one has the work of the noted American jurist, James Gray, in his Temple University book:
Gray, a California Superior Court judge, warned as long ago as 1992 that “our country’s attempt through the criminal
justice system to combat drug use and abuse, and all of the crime and misery that accompany them” was not working.
Judge Gray examines practically every aspect of the drug dilemma, but his major conclusion is that the so-called “war on drugs” will never be won. You have to get the profit motive out of it first. That means legalization, with appropriate regulations and precautions. We need to do as the Americans have done in Iraq – declare victory and get out.
My own view (expressed today in the Globe and Mail) is that the crimes committed by addicts to fund their illegal drug habits cause far greater harm to society than their usage of the drugs. Legalization, with all the attendant regulations and medical provisions that would go with it, would offer a far more humane and economical outcome.
If one were to set out to devise a policy to create maximum social harm with the greatest waste of taxpayers’ money, one could do no better than copy our present drug laws. They are the result of several generations of bunkum law and order propaganda entirely lacking in scientific credence. Their most notable achievement has been the entrenchment of a murderous, and immensely profitable, illegal drug trade.
Any government which continues to cling to the war on drugs is, in effect, making war on all its people, addicts or not.
The PBS network recently ran the wonderful Ken Burns series on Prohibition in the United States. That was a noble but failed experiment to eliminate a particular drug and it had to be finally abandoned. I wonder how many people,watching that series, came to the same conclusion about today’s war on drugs?
Travelling about Europe this past week, I followed the sad news of the death of Jack Layton, and his funeral today (Saturday, August 27) in Toronto. I write this in the Toronto International Airport, awaiting ground transportation to take me home.
So much has been said and written about Jack Layton that anything I could add would probably be redundant. I last spoke to Jack one Saturday morning when Deborah and I encountered him in a bookstore on Danforth Avenue. He was filling the role of the “constituency man.” getting about his riding and keeping in touch with people and things.
Margaret Wente has a lovely account of Jack’s funeral at Globe and Mail Online.
Jack Layton’s death was the subject of a long account I read in the International Herald Tribune while in Paris. I was there doing some research on a book idea.
Interestingly, there’s been quite a bit of Canada in the European press this week. The Sino Forest scandal on Bay Street made the Financial Times of London, and I ran across a review of Maureen Jennings’ new book, Season of Darkness. She’s the author of the books behind that great TV series, Murdoch Mysteries, featuring an 1890s’ Toronto detective with a flair for solving cases through clever use of newly emerging scientific criminology.
In Paris, we watched with several thousands others the ceremonies in front of l’Hotel de Ville commemorating the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. This year tribute was paid to the resistants who rose against the Germans in the final days of the Occupation. It was a moving ceremony and while the crowd was not large by Parisian standards, it included many young people, presumably all mindful of the importance of that historic day.
Back in Canada, the prevailing sentiment in wake of the death of Jack Layton seems to be a yearning for politicians to learn from the positive and optimistic view he expressed so eloquently, especially in his final campaign. I have always felt that the first priority of a national leader should be to provide people with reason to feel positive about their country and themselves. Not blind patriotism of the flag waving type so endemic to the United States, but a genuine sense of delight about a country’s prospects and the promise it holds for its people and their place in the world.
It is probably unrealistic to expect the aura around Jack Layton’s passing to persist for more than a brief moment. But one can hope that the flame he set alight will burn in the hearts of men and women in our public life for a very long time to come.
On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Division of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s Fighting French. Every year since then, Parisians have gathered on this date to celebrate the restoration of their city’s freedom. Among the celebrated personalities who helped “liberate” Paris was Ernest Hemingway, at the head of his own rag-tag little army. He checked out the bar at the Ritz Hotel where he’d drank many a martini, visited his friend Sylvia Beach who’d had to give up her Shakespeare & Co. bookshop during the occupation, then returned to the Ritz to share a dinner with eight officers. They signed each other’s menus with the identical inscription: “We think we took Paris!”
So this is a good time to be reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Bond Street Books), a fictional rendering of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It is a story well-known to anyone who has read Hemingway biographies, yet it sympathetically explores the emotions and attitudes that Hadley and Ernest must have shared and felt, in a way that is possible only in a work of fiction.Nevertheless, The Paris Wife is faithful to the historical record.
Hadley Richardson was an earnest and adventurous midwestern girl when she met Hemingway in Chicago in 1920. He wooed her there and by love letters he sent her when she returned to her home in St. Louis. They married in September, 1921. Hemingway had made up his mind to go to Europe to pursue a writing life, intending to settle in Rome. Sherwood Anderson urged him to go to Paris instead, and gave him letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach.
The novelty of the bohemian life they found in Paris was entrancing to both Ernest and Hadley.The young wife adjusts slowly to the cafe life, the drinking and the trips that Ernest makes throughout Europe on assignments for the Toronto Star. When he is sent to cover a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, Hadley is sick in bed, and Ernest goes ahead. When she follows, a few nights later, she commits the sin of which Ernest will never really forgive her. She puts all his manuscripts in a valise and sets out for the train. Somehow, she loses the valise, either to a thief or to absent-mindedness. The reader shares her dismay when she discovers this, and the pain when she has to tell Ernest what has happened. He rushes back to Paris thinking Hadley could not possibly have done as she had said. The manuscripts are nowhere to be found.
When she became pregnant, Ernest decides the baby should be born in North America. The couple return to Toronto, but Ernest is soon distraught at the petty politics of the Star and the dullness of life in this proper Protestant city. “Toronto’s dead,” Paula McLain has Ernest telling Hadley. “We can’t stay here.”
The Paris Wife is a chronicle of adventure, love, and despair, an absorbing and illuminating story of two lives descending into an inevitable pit of defeat. One cannot read it without experiencing the taste and hearing the sounds of Paris life. Hemingway’s own memory of his Paris life, as in A Moveable Feast, is reflected unerringly in this novel, as incident on incident piles up, adding stress to the marriage.
One watches, fascinated, as Pauline Pfeiffer, who will become Ernest’s second wife, enters their lives. She is not merely tolerated but welcomed by Hadley, even after she realizes Hemingway has been sleeping with her. But it is the scenes in Spain, where Hemingway has gone to write his masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises, that McLain depicts to most painfully register the dismay Hadley feels over what is happening.
The book is at its strongest in its final chapters, where Hadley realizes she can no longer be a dull but loyal wife, and that he will soon leave her, ready to begin not just another marriage but another epic work of literature. Scott Fitzgerald, who with Zelda is seldom absent from this book, is said to have concluded that Ernest needed a new wife for every big new book.
The Paris Wife is about a great writer, his moral lapses, his intensity and his determination to “write well and true,” as well as about the woman who shared the early years of his success. But most of all, it is about an age, one that perhaps never really existed beyond the pages of the books that Hemingway and his contemporaries would write, but one that continues to fascinate, and will have everlasting appeal.
I will be in Paris for this year’s Liberation Day ceremony. A martini at the Ritz, and a salute to The Paris Wife will be in order.
The mini boom in Canada’s largest city in support of Margaret Atwood for Mayor raises some interesting questions. Would the 71-year-old novelist, poet and sometime political activist ever seriously consider jumping into politics? And if she did run for Mayor of Toronto, could she win?
To this point, the gathering support for Atwood for Mayor is not much more than a lighthearted fling, a spontaneous outbreak of enthusiasm following her intervention in the debate over the future of the city’s library system.
The novelist is accustomed to taking stands on issues affecting arts and culture. She’s been a bitter critic of Stephen Harper. Now, in the wake of Mayor Rob Ford’s determination to “cut the gravy” from city spending, she’s become the prime proponent of saving the Toronto Public Library’s 99 branches that circulate more books than any other system in North America.
Ms. Atwood started it all with a Tweet to her 233,361 followers on July 21, responding to the KPMG report that identified library closings as a possible way of helping the city out of the $750 million hole that Mayor Rob Ford has dug it into in the first year of his term.
The Tweet heard round Canada: “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell city council to keep them public now.” Her appeal drove readers to an online petition on a web site of the Library Workers Union. The site promptly crashed, and as I write (Sunday, July 31) it’s attracted 41,499 signatures.
More pointed Tweets followed, including this one:
“Twin Fordmayor cld fight for fair shake from ON, but that’s not the agenda? T(he)y want to trash old folks + readers + working moms instead?
The Twin Ford reference cleverly links in the Mayor’s witless brother, Doug Ford, who promptly denied any knowledge of who Margaret Atwood might be, or what she does.
“Good luck to Margaret Atwood, I don’t even know her. She could walk right by me – I wouldn’t have a clue who she is,” Ford said in response to Atwood’s tweets. “Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected. I’m happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”
So how about it, Margaret Atwood. Would you run for Mayor?
Anyone who knows her knows that Margaret Atwood could never fill the role of a back-slapping politician. But she wouldn’t be the first artist to go for political office. I’m thinking of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and poet dissident who was the President of free Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. Or Jan Paderewski, the great Polish composer and pianist who was the second Prime Minister of an independent Poland after the First World War.
Would Ms. Atwood have the interest, the stamina, or the ability to withstand the inanities of a political life? Anyone who’s been through the ordeal of author tours as she has, surely has the stamina. Age is not a factor. Look at Hazel McCallion, long-serving mayor of neighboring Mississauga, and at 90 only now is in what will be her final term.
But let’s face it, Margaret Atwood running for Mayor of Toronto is a highly unlikely prospect.
Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment, and pretend Toronto voters could choose between Atwood and Ford in the next election.The campaign would be highly entertaining, pitting culture against the barbarians. However, like all things political, it probably wouldn’t be fought on any rational understanding of issues facing the city. The Ford forces would depict Margaret Atwood as a “tax and spend liberal.” She’d fight back, brilliantly, but perhaps not successfully.
The library controversy is a case in point. It would be nice to have a rational discussion of the cost/benefits of the city’s chain of libraries. Doug Ford claimed, erroneously, there were more branches in his Etobicoke district than there were Tim Hortons coffee shops. Not true, but what’s that got to do with it?
With the city hard pressed to cover its costs, perhaps a rational analysis might turn up one or two libraries that could be closed without depriving anyone of reasonable access. Even if that were the case, the savings would be miniscule. But it would give Mayor Ford the spoon of gravy that he needs to feed the right-wing voters who put him in office.
As of today, Margaret Atwood is off Twitter for a week, busy on a writing project. Maybe she’ll tell us when she comes back how she would feel about becoming a politician.
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